SIDON, Lebanon — On a main road connecting the Lebanese capital with the south, Sheik Ahmad Assir kneels under a blazing sun to pray and then sits down with supporters at his anti-Hezbollah protest camp and launches into a new tirade against Lebanon’s most powerful and well-armed force.
Few in Lebanon have dared take on the Shiite terrorist group in such a public way, but Sheik Assir, a hardline Sunni cleric, senses weakness. He sees a chance to push back against Hezbollah’s domination of the country’s politics.
The growing popularity among some Sunnis of the previously little known local cleric is a sign of how vulnerable Hezbollah has become as it faces the possibility of the downfall of its crucial ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Its reputation as a popular resistance movement already has taken a severe beating for siding with Syria against the anti-Assad uprising, after it supported Arab revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain.
“This is the start of what will become Lebanon’s Tahrir Square,” Sheik Assir, wearing a long robe and white skullcap, said at his protest site, where about 150 Sunni conservative supporters have been camped out for some three weeks.
“They have humiliated us for long enough. It’s about our dignity now. I can’t live like this, it’s enough.”
Mr. Assad’s fall would be a nightmare scenario for Hezbollah. Any Sunni-led new regime likely would be far less friendly to the group or be even outright hostile. Regime change in Syria could heavily damage its ally’s political clout in Lebanon and knock out a third of the “Iran-Syria-Hezbollah” axis of “resistance” to Israel.
Mr. Nasrallah admitted how crucial the alliance with Damascus is in a speech Wednesday night, after Mr. Assad’s regime suffered its hardest blow yet in the conflict when a bomb blast killed three major regime figures, including the defense minister and Mr. Assad’s brother-in-law.
In the face of the Syria crisis, Hezbollah is treading carefully to retain the power it has built up over the past 30 years in Lebanon, a deeply divided country where its strength is resented by Sunnis and some in the Christian community.
The group’s main strategy appears to be to lay low and avoid aggravating the volatile fault line between the Sunni and Shiite communities, which each make up about a third of Lebanon’s population of 4 million.
Lebanon’s sectarian tensions already have been worsened by the crisis in Syria, where the overwhelmingly Sunni opposition is struggling to oust a regime dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Regional shifts also weigh on Hezbollah. The so-called Arab Spring sweeping the Middle East so far has led to the rise of conservative Sunni Islamists deeply resentful of Shiite powerhouse Iran and its allies, Syria and Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah has accepted that this is going to be a protracted crisis in Syria and by virtue of that, the group has been much readier to calibrate and reduce its footprint,” said Aram Nerguizian, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Over the course of Syria’s 16-month uprising, Mr. Nerguizian and other analysts have noted a subtle shift in Hezbollah’s public position. Early on, Sheik Nasrallah embraced Mr. Assad, casting him as a reformer in speeches that infuriated Syrian protesters. He has somewhat modified his stance, calling on both sides to cease the violence and engage in dialogue.
The 44-year-old, bespectacled cleric with a long bushy beard was a little-known preacher at the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in Sidon. Now he is openly challenging and taunting Hezbollah like few have dared before, even taking aim at Sheik Nasrallah.
Sheik Assir calls his protest camp an “uprising” against Hezbollah’s weapons, aimed at bringing the powerful arsenal of the group’s guerrilla force under the control of the government. Hezbollah, the country’s strongest armed force, has resisted pressure to do so for years.
Sheik Assir set up the camp blocking a main road in the southern coastal city of Sidon. The city is the gateway to Hezbollah’s traditional stronghold in the south and links the group's command center in Beirut’s southern suburbs with front-line villages in the south.
Sunni bitterness still runs deep over clashes in May 2008, when Hezbollah gunmen swept through Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut after the pro-Western government of that time tried to dismantle the group’s crucial telecommunications network. More than 80 people were killed.
A U.N.-backed special tribunal has accused four Hezbollah members in the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s most powerful Sunni leader. Hezbollah says the tribunal is a tool of Israel and the West.
Hezbollah still is Lebanon’s single most influential player with considerable support among Shiites and unprecedented political clout. It holds a dominant role in Beirut’s government and the prime minister is an ally, after the fall of the previous government sidelined Hezbollah’s opponents, the U.S.- and Western-backed factions led by Hariri’s son Saad. Its extensive arsenal of weapons and rockets is virtually untouchable for the moment.
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